‘Til Dawn Comes
Alice slowed as she passed the parking lot near the Ploegseert Memorial for the Missing. The lot was full of cars, and the road was lined with people on either side, most holding candles, waiting to visit the cemeteries. The big white monument was lit up, scattering the darkness, and a somewhere out of sight a brass band was playing something slow and mournful that slipped gently into her open window along with the cold night air.
Alice drove on. She wanted a quiet place.
She drove through the town, following the road around the Pleogseert forest. Alice spotted a side road that led straight into the dark forest. She turned onto it and drove in until the she found a place wide enough for her to park. She pulled over and turned off the engine and the lights, sitting still and quiet until her eyes adjusted to the darkness.
Alice slipped out of the car, shouldering her small backpack and checking her weapon where it lay snug against the small of her back before stepping into the forest. It was so dark that she briefly wished for night-vision goggles to see who else was lurking there.
But there wouldn’t be anyone lurking there. She was in Belgium, not Afghanistan. Besides, it would be better in darkness.
Alice moved slow and silent through the woods, taking each step carefully to avoid tripping or catching herself on the undergrowth. Unlike the fields around Ploegseert, the forest was still rough with craters from the shelling a hundred years before. It wasn’t a big forest like the ones back home, but she could pretend it was. She could pretend she was alone in the middle of nowhere.
She found a spot where the darkness was so complete she could barely see at all. She unslung her backpack and put her back against the tree, shifting the holster so she could slide down without rubbing the weapon against the trunk. She sat and listened.
She unzipped the pack, finding and opening the whiskey bottle by feel. There was also a big cardboard box, filled with pastries, but she wasn’t hungry like she’d thought she’d be. The sharp smell of the whiskey singed her nostrils before it burned its way down her throat. The heat of it spread over her like the hands of an old familiar lover.
She put the bottle back in the pack. One was enough.
She reached deeper in the pack and found her cigarettes and matches. It was wet enough that she could smoke without worrying about burning down the forest. She brought the cigarette to her lips, the taste of the filter bringing back memories of sharing them with her buddies when they got back behind the wire; times when she was shaking so bad that someone else had to hold the lighter for her.
She found the wooden matches and closed one eye to protect her night vision before striking it. The yellow flame flared up, briefly lighting the wet branches around her before she covered it. She dropped the box back into her pack and raised the match to the cigarette, sucking in the smoke as the tobacco caught. She blew the match out with a puff, ground it against the wet earth until there was no heat left in it, and then buried it.
Alice’s hand was covering the cigarette, blocking its light. She smiled at herself and turned it over, letting the little red ember glow in the darkness. She watched at it for a time before looking up. The sky she could see through the branches above was cloudy. There were no stars to be seen.
Alice sighed and drew her weapon. She pointed it at her head, pushing the barrel against her temple.
“What the bloody hell are you doing? Do you want the Bosche to shoot you?”
Even as Alice leapt to her feet, weapon forward, a hand grabbed her shoulder. In a sharp British accent, the owner of it snapped. “Get your gear and get your ass in the trench! Now, soldier!”
It didn’t even occur to Alice to disobey.
She scooped up the backpack and ran with him, dodging the trees and tripping in the gullies until he jumped down into an old trench. Alice followed, landing in a crouch, the pistol still in her hand.
“What have you brought us, Mike?”
Alice spun, pistol coming up. A young man in a wool khaki uniform with a pot helmet and a surprised expression sat on the other side of a fire she swore hadn’t been there before. He raised his hands. “Calm down, now.”
“What the fuck is going on?” Alice demanded, swinging her pistol from one to the other. “Who are you?”
“Language, soldier,” said Mike. His uniform was also khaki, but had captain’s pips on the shoulders.
“Soldier?” Said a French accent behind them. “Surely a creature this lovely is not a soldier. And certainly not in such tight trousers.”
Alice turned and saw three French soldiers in blue greatcoats slipping into the trench.
“She’s one of us,” said Mike. “Found her smoking cigarettes with her pistol at her skull.”
“Ah,” said the second of the French soldiers, nodding. “In that case, you may as well sit.”
He put deed to word and the two other French soldiers joined him.
“You said cigarettes,” said the other English soldier to Captain Mike. “Does she still have one?”
“Ask her yourself.” Mike surveyed Alice up and down. “Name, rank and unit, soldier.”
“And do you dance?” Asked a soldier with a Newfoundland accent as he stepped out of the woods.
“She must,” said a second soldier, his accent Saskatchewan flat. “Girl as pretty as her has to know how to dance.”
“You may was well put the pistol away,” said the British infantryman, his voice gentle. “It’s not like it will do you any good, here.”
“Here?” repeated Alice, her head swivelling on her shoulders. She put her back to the trench wall, trying to keep them all in sight. “Where the hell is here? What the fuck is going on?”
“Well, she’s certainly a Canadian,” said Captain Mike. “You colonists have such rough tongues.”
“Won’t ask how you know that, ,” said the Newfoundlander. “Are we all here?”
“Almost,” said one of the Frenchman. He took a small metal box from its strap on his shoulder and opened it. An accordion nestled inside. ”The rest will come soon.”
“What,” Alice ground out. “The fuck. Is going. On here?”
“Name, rank and unit first, soldier,” said Captain Mike. “You’ll never get anywhere without introductions.”
Alice seriously considered shooting him in the kneecap. “Akiwenzie, sergeant, Canadian Special Operations Forces.”
“What’s special operations?” Asked the Newfoundlander. “Never heard the like.”
“I have,” said an American G.I., stepping out of the shadows. His uniform was green, and he wore the helmet Alice had seen in too many World War Two movies to count. “The Devil’s Brigade, right?” He took a seat by the fire and held out his hands to it.
“Green Berets,” said another American, coming out of the woods in Vietnam era camouflage. “Didn’t know they used women.”
“More like S.A.S.,” said another Brit. His uniform was newer than the others, but still out of style.
“Enough of this shit!” Alice put the pistol against Captain Mike’s head. “Tell me what is going on right now or I’ll spread your brains all over the forest!”
Captain Mike smiled. “My dear, you are far and away too late for that.”
“Ninety-nine years, in fact,” said the private.
Alice looked around at the men in the trench, and the fire they had built.
“I think introductions are in order,” said Captain Mike. “By seniority of age, I think. Gentlemen?”
The three Frenchmen rose and bowed.
“Private Jean Arnal.”
“Corporal Louis Papin.”
“Private Marius Chataigneau,” he smiled at her. “All of us killed at the first Battle of Ypres.”
“Captain Michael Dennis,” said the Captain. “Second Battle of Ypres.
“Edmund William,” said the other British soldier. “Private. Sniper got me. Right over there.”
“Morris Dovey,” said the Newfoundlander “Sergeant. Wounded at Passchendaele. Died on the way through here.”
“Tommy Peterson,” said the Saskatchewan boy. “Lieutenant.” He pointed a thumb at the Newfoundlander. “I was carrying him.”
Alice felt the ground wobble beneath her. She stayed on her feet with the same strength that had allowed her to charge through the door firing, and keep going when she realized how young the ones she’d shot were. She took a pair of steadying breaths then looked at the other three.
“Corporal Martin Hamilton,” said the G.I. “Was attached to the British at Ypres for the second big one. “
“Jimmy Hudson,” said the one in Vietnam Camouflage. “Major. After Vietnam. Shot myself in the head, right over there.”
“After Oman for me,” said the SAS man. “Sergeant Brian Smith. Did it half a mile that way. Wanted to be close to my grandfather.” He laughed. “Of course, he’s not here.”
“He let it go,” said Captain Mike. “You didn’t.”
“That’s the truth,” said Brian. “But then, none of us did.” He smiled at Alice. “What didn’t you let go, love?”
“And more important,” said Edmund. “Do you have cigarettes?”
Alice’s eyes widened and she spun, looking in vain through the darkness for the place where she’d sat against the tree.
“You’re not there,” said Jimmy. “You’d be in uniform if you were. And you’d have left the pistol behind.”
“We all leave them behind,” said Jean.
“But we stay,” said Marius. “Us and our memories. What was your memory, Alice?”
“It… I was…” Alice stared at them. None looked hurt. None were covered in mud or blood, and none had weapons. All watched her with calm, accepting eyes. “I have cigarettes. And whiskey. And some pastries.”
“I told you she wasn’t a soldier,” said Marius. “She is an Angel!”
“Share it out, will you Sergeant?” asked Captain Mike. “And do holster the weapon.”
Alice stared at the pistol in her hand like she’d never seen it before. Then she slid it back in her holster and squatted down in front of the bag.
She shared the cigarettes out first and passed around matches. The men’s sighs as they puffed were the happiest sound she had heard in a long time. Soon they were sharing whiskey in tin cups and savoring the pastries. The air in the trench grew thick with cigarette smoke. The fire seemed to be burning a little brighter, making the faces of the eight men shine as they laughed and smiled and tried to flirt. Louis pulled out the accordion and began playing.
“Troop,” Captain Mike’s voice broke through the happy noise. “Listen.”
All eight fell silent, listening. Alice strained her ears with the rest of them. It was nearly too quiet to hear at first, but then she caught it. Far away, someone was singing in German.
“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!…”
“Who… who is that?” asked Alice.
“The Germans of course,” said Captain Mike. “It’s that time.”
“It is, indeed,” said Sergeant Morris. “Raise up the voices, lads, and let them know we’re here!”
And so they sang. “Silent Night” first, then “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Alice sat, entranced, listening to the rough voices, some off tune, make the old words beautiful in the old, grass-covered trench.
“Got a favourite, Alice?” asked Marius. “We can sing it.”
“Uhh… Angels We Have Heard on High?” Alice said, bemused.
“The girl likes a challenge,” declared Tommy. “Can we take it?”
“We can!” declared Jean. “All together!”
“Wait,” said Alice. “How long do you sing?”
“ ’Til dawn,” said Morris. “That’s when it happens.”
“When what happens?”
“The Christmas truce,” said Captain Michael. “December 25, 1914.”
“But… It’s not 1914,” said Alice. “It’s 2014.”
“Not tonight it’s not,” said Jimmy. “Look up.”
Alice looked up. The sky wasn’t clouded anymore, and the quarter moon shone down on them. The air smelled different; of blood and gunpowder and smoke and,the stench of rot. It was colder, too. Alice shivered in her light jacket and leaned closer to the fire. In the distance, the Germans were singing something new.
Ihr Kinderlein, kommet,
O kommet doch all!
Zur Krippe her kommet
In Bethlehems Stall.
Und seht was in dieser
Der Vater im Himmel
Für Freude uns macht.
“We’re here every year,” said Edmund. “Us here and Germans there. And sometimes we get new ones.” He nodded at Jimmy and Brian. “Hoped they would be the last, to be truthful, but the Germans got a few extras over the years too and now you… if you stay, that is,” he added.
“I… I don’t know.” She looked out into the darkness and listened to the Germans singing.
“Well, you’ve got all night to decide,” said Captain Michael. “Now give it Hell lads!”
The lads did, and “Angels We Have Heard on High” rang out from the trench.
They sang all night, and Alice joined in when she knew the words. The sky above them grew lighter and the air crisp and colder than it should have been. They huddled together, sharing the warmth of the fire and the warmth of each others bodies until the first rays of the sun cut through the woods.
From out in the fields, through the now-visible woods, they heard,
Hört die Himmelsboten singen
Friedenskunde uns zu bringen
Freut euch, Völker dieser Erde,
daß er in sein Herz uns nehm’!
Hört der Himmelsbotenlied,
Heil dem neugebor’nen Herrn!
selig jubelnd nah und fern.
betet, daß uns Rettung werde,
Christ erstand in Bethlehem!
endlich uns das hell erblüht!
“Well, Gentlemen,” said Captain Michael. “It’s time. Shall we?”
They stood together, Alice with them. The Captain led them down the trench-line to the edge of the woods. One by one they stepped out onto the flat field that had once been no-man’s land.
A hundred yards away, Alice saw the Germans, smiling and waving.
The line of them stretched on for miles.
Alice looked to either side and saw the line of allied soldiers, stretching just as far.
“I think that the wars have claimed quite enough,” said Captain Michael following her gaze. “Don’t you?”
The lines of men began walking forward, smiles on their face. The sun grew brighter and with each step the soldiers began to fade. The once-solid bodies became transparent, and the boot steps grew softer until it was only the sound of the wind over the wet soil.
And when they met in the middle they all disappeared, leaving Alice alone in the field.
She stood there for an hour before she headed back to her car.